Work-Life Balance—or Work-Life Integration?
Kellie G. Olah, CVPM, SPHR
The topic of work-life balance has been discussed for decades, with a variety of experts weighing in with different perspectives. Over the past few years, though, a new phrase has been tossed into the mix—that of work-life integration—and you may be wondering if there is really a difference, or if an old phrase has just been given a fresher name. The short answer is that the idea of work-life balance has evolved into a new and more holistic concept—that of integration. Here’s more.
Balance Versus Integration
The idea of balance suggests that the amount of time or energy spent on one activity—whether work or life outside of it—takes away from the other activity. As a visual, imagine a double-pan scale. If you put weights on one side, the other side automatically goes up while the side with the weights goes down. So, in a work-life balance scenario, time spent at work automatically takes away time spent with family, friends, and so forth—and vice versa.
This concept does have value, though. It’s simple and straightforward. You’re working or you’re otherwise living your life. Either/or. Plus, when this concept began to be discussed in the 1970s and 1980s, it did shine a spotlight on stressed, even burned out workers—initially the Baby Boomers—and it acknowledged the need for personal time.
More recently, experts and human resource leaders have begun to challenge this concept, or at least point out flaws. For example, many Millennials are looking at the work-life equation somewhat differently, in a way that doesn’t fit within the notion of balancing the two options.
These Millennials are envisioning what a meaningful life would look like to them and then seeking out jobs and pursuing careers that would allow that to happen. This is in contrast to the approach that’s traditionally been used—that of finding a job and then fitting in family and leisure activities around employment.
So, in short, work-life integration replaces an either/or dynamic with a holistic one that has more fluidity and flexibility.
Which Combination Resonates?
An example of the traditional concept of work-life balance would be a “banker’s hours” type of job where a person goes to work from, say, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Before they go into work and after they get home—and on the weekends—work is left behind, and they focus on other aspects of life. Shift hours don’t have to be 9 to 5; this is being used to illustrate the either/or nature of a work-life balance.
Now picture a continuum. One the far left are people whose passion for their careers is so great that they largely prefer a work-work balance. Any free time they have would preferably be spent finding additional ways to contribute, career-wise, and to advance in the workplace. On the far right are people with a life-life balance, where they may work because they have to for income, but their career is not a focus. Free time goes to friends, family members, hobbies, and so forth.
Now, the middle of our continuum can represent work-life integration, a situation where the two aspects of life fuse together in a satisfactory way. At this point of our illustration, the continuum image still works symbolically, but not literally—because the combination of work and life that works for one person won’t work for another, and it’s typically not an equal balance of the two activities. Each person can have a different spot on the continuum.
How Your Practice Can Respond
First, it’s important to understand what each of your employees needs, and what each one values, and then brainstorm ways to contribute. The underlying philosophy is that, as your practice’s team is able to take care of family commitments and otherwise participate in meaningful events, the more they’ll be able to provide their best quality of work. After all, even employees with the highest levels of commitment can fall short when they’re feeling burned out or worried because they can’t be present during important family moments.
Next, practice managers can hold conversations with each employee to talk about how to cooperatively create and optimize his or her work-life integration. A key component of this would be to see how flexible the work environment can be. Can employees, for example, switch shifts as long as it’s done in an equitable way that won’t leave gaps in service? Can an employee’s hours be tweaked on certain days? Are there any circumstances in which an employee can do some work remotely?
If employees struggle to fit in exercise with their work and family responsibilities, can your practice have someone lead them in yoga stretches during lunch? If they want or need to obtain continuing education credits, but find it difficult to earn them after work hours, how can you incorporate opportunities in company lunch and learns?
Will this system work perfectly, every day? Of course not. Integration is an ongoing process. On some days, a work schedule may be more demanding; on other days, a personal emergency could arise. Plus, work-related needs and non-work needs can evolve, which means that a process of continual assessment and adjustment will be required.
Practice Managers and Owners
To help develop a flexible work culture, practice managers should also look after their own integration needs. This helps to prevent burn out and sets a good example. It’s also important to not micro-manage the flexibility options that have been given to employees. If, for example, employees are allowed to switch shifts as long as gaps as covered, don’t hover over the employees’ shoulders.
Establish reasonable processes and procedures; include them in your employee manual; communicate them clearly to employees; and then give practice team members some breathing room in implementing them. Encourage them to work out challenges together as a team, only entering the process when they have reached a stalemate.
How Practices Can Benefit
When a practice flexibly collaborates with employees to help them maintain work-life integration, employees are more likely to stay at that practice. This allows managers to recruit and retain quality professionals—which in turns reduces turnover costs associated with recruiting and training new employees.
Plus, when an employee is given opportunities to integrate their lives more fully, they will likely be happier and more committed to the practice—and that shows in the service they provide to clients and their animal companions. This will allow them to serve as better role models for new employees, more willing to help their office mates to achieve their own work-life integrations.
SIDE BAR: Work-Life Integration During COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has changed people’s lifestyles in numerous ways. Some people may be working fewer hours than before or have been laid off or furloughed, while others may be working more hours than ever. Some people have been directly impacted by the virus, perhaps needing to care for a loved one or to recover from illness personally. Although specifics will vary by person, today’s realities can have a significant impact on how you view work-life integration and may trigger evolutions in perspectives.
In other words, you now have an opportunity to evaluate what you truly value through a new and unexpected lens. There are no right or wrong responses when it comes to your thoughts and feelings about work-life integration during the pandemic—so analyze your own unique reactions.
How would you (re)prioritize each aspect of your life? What things that once seemed important can now be set aside for a later time? What now feels crucial to you that you wouldn’t necessary have prioritized so highly, pre-COVID? What aspects of life do you now realize you are ready to eliminate from your lifestyle? What elements of self care do you now plan to implement?